Bernard-Henri Lévy on Mosul and the French Elections

TIME: 12:30-13:45, 26th April 2017

VENUE: Committee Room 10, House of Commons
Palace of Westminster, London, SW1A 0AA

SPEAKER: Bernard-Henri Lévy, Philosopher, Journalist and Writer

Richard Risby: Hello everyone, my name is Richard Risby, and Tom Tugendhat MP has been caught up in the Chamber of the House of Common because it’s a final session of PM questions before the elections and it has been extended. So when he comes I will gracefully move over. But it is for me particular pleasure to introduce Bernard Henry Levy who I’ve got to know very well on the last few years. This is somebody who is world famous, a philosopher with great distinctions, he has written many, many books, he is the only writer to have ever addressed the general assembly of the United Nations and certainly somebody who I think unbelievably courageous.

The filming of The Battle of Mosul which of course he was intimately involved with, was actually put on screen here in London and it is really worthwhile seeing, it’s a real insight to what is going on. And that displays not only his intellectual depth, but also his bravery. He is going to be speak about the Battle of Mosul today, but he is also going to make reference to what is, probably, the most exciting French presidential elections in many decades. It’s a real personal pleasure to welcome you here Bernard Henry Levy, and we look forward to hear what you have to say.

BHL:  Thank you my dear Richard, I appreciate the high regards. Battle of Mosul, yes, I came in London thanks to Hexagon Society for a little screening which took place yesterday night. Obviously, Battle of Mosul which I devoted with a little team of friends to the battle which is going on now, which is not finished, against ISIS. ISIS as you know, is a global threat, ISIS hits in London, in Paris in Brussels, all over the world but the centre of command of ISIS, the brain of ISIS, is somewhere between Raqqa in Syria and Mosul in Iraq. After the terrorist attack in Paris, of Bataclan, Charlie Hebdo, Hyper Casher, all this series, I decided with my friend the producer Francois Margolin who is here, and with two young brave cameraman to go on the field, to go on the battle field and to be a witness to cover this battle for freedom, this battle for civilisation, this battle for barbarism.

I don’t like battles, I don’t like wars, I know them enough well to be aware of how disgusting are the wars and how depressing a war is always. But, I know them enough to be aware also, of the distinction between just and unjust wars. I know that there is a war which that, though disgusting, disgusting as they can be, are necessary and I know that the world would be even worse without them. There is a philosophical theory of the just wars, which goes far away to Saint Augustin and St Thomas and others and theoreticians of the natural law, ‘le droit naturel’, Grotus, Plufendorg and others, and this war against ISIS is a just war. Even if it is again, the images which was screened last night and which I hope you will find, you will see the point in England, some of them are unbearable some of them are really frightening. We were with my comrades in very difficult situations sometimes, we had to witness, to see things which a man or a woman should not see, but we came back from this experience with a clear knowledge that this is necessary.

Because a global war, a total war, a war of annihilation has been launched against us by the radical Islamism and especially by this form which is Daesh* (ISIS) and as always when t we’re strike we have to react by all means. This is what it happening today in Mosul and this is what we try to witness of or for in this film Battle of Mosul which happen to be also, we can discuss of that may be, which happen to be also a celebration and a praise of one of the most dissent community in this area of the world, of the Middle East, which are the Kurds.

For reasons which appear in the movie, I think and this is what the movie is doing so also, that the Kurds should be supported even more than what we do, by the west, by the democrats of all over the world. If there is a place where the words enlightened Islam has sense, if there is a place where democratic Islam took a real body and has its real soul it is among the Kurds. They are Muslims, they are pious, and they are sometimes strong worshippers of Islam, but, or, and, they support equality of genders between men and women, they support human rights, they are pro-west, they are pro- Israel. There is a scene, not in this movie but in the movie the same team did one year ago which is called Pershmergas, Pershmergas was another prologue of the battle of Mosul where our escort, we are on the battle field, we are in a special forces group of the Kurds, and our escort takes us, insist to take us, to a little village far away from the front lines, two kilometres.

I don’t see why I should go to this remote village or city, remote from the front line, this is not my movie, my producer insist to economise, to do our best every day, every hour, because it costs a lot but he insists and I don’t know why he wants me to go to this city which is called Akrai, A-K-R-A-I. And we arrive in Akrai, and we discover why my escort insisted so much to bring me to Akrai, the reason why is that in Akrai the city 99.99 percent of the population is Muslim, you have mosque and so on but in this city of Akrai there is a place of memory and a place of pride, of pride. A place of which the Kurds are very proud, a nearly sacred place which is the birth place, the house where was born a man called Yitzhak Mordechai – and who was one former Defence Minister of Israel. So a Muslim country, where the birth place of a Minister of Defence of Israel is considered as holy place is at least an exception is not a miracle and it says a lot about the very special thing which is attached to the Kurdish identity. So this is what we did in Battle of Mosul, in Perchermegas, and during these two last years and I am very happy to have involved, to have committed myself to this cause, to have pleaded for these special people.

French elections. The most passionate, yes probably, since long. And also the most disgusting in some ways, it was a terrible election to be frank. The French election, and it is still terrible election. Number one because, sometimes I wonder it was really an election or if it was not a baseball match or a reality show or a Mexican telenovela. The voters were transformed into supporters, they were not appreciating the just cause of candidates but how well they performed. The question was not he is right but he is good. In America as you know there is a whole topic about the post-truth, the post-verite, and in this election we were in the post, post-truth. After the post truth, the question of the truth in this campaign in France, was no longer an issue. The issue was to know what the demeanour of Mister Fillon was when he had to suffer the terrible revelation on this private life and when he came on TV, the only question was that. All the screeners, all the viewers were transformed into obscene watchers, watch, of the face of Mister Fillon of the fairness of another candidate and so on. So it caused very bad atmosphere, a sort of a spectacular election in the sense of the situationist Guy Deborre, Societe du Spectacle, into our first purely spectacular election.

Number two, there was something very, also, painful about this election which was this sort of revolution with a series of political beheading without of course guillotine. We were a country of revolution as you know, and a special revolution who decapitated the King. In these last months, we decapitated a series of Kings. Everyone who had the privilege of leading affairs of France was, not for real political reasons, but as a sort of pulsion, as sort of revolutionary pulsion without violence, was expelled from the theatre. Mister Sarkozy was not being a bad president, he was killed in the first round of the primary. Mr Hollande, who was not bad President, was expelled from the scene without even being able to run. Mister Juppe, who was not a, who was a decent state man, was also repelled, and Mr Valls, Prime Minister.

There was a strange atmosphere in this election, of revolution a blanc, blank revolution in our French, the old-fashioned way, which was in a way terrifying. The only way to run in this election, the only way to be endorsed by the system, was to be anti-system. The password for this election was to be anti-system. If you did not say, if you do not say, even today, if you don’t pretend to be anti-system, you could not run. Mr Macron had to say and said brilliantly that he was anti-system, Mr Melenchon said that he wanted to kill the system, Mr Fillon understood quickly but not quickly enough that he had to pretend to be anti-system. The system was that the system willing to kill him, and so on and so on. So it was also this anti-system, and what the populist of today call the system might be part of what I call, and my friends here call democratie.  The system is the system of institutions, of mediations, of process, which make the flesh, the spirit of democracy. So there is a sort of hate, hatred of constant roaming revenge against the system. So it was a very terrible election for that too.

The telenovela, the anti-system and number three. The last we thing which was, and which is at the moment where I am speaking just now, really discording anxiety is the attitude of parts of the French left. I said that with calm and as colder blood as I can, but it is really a concern. The last 20, 30, 40 years in France and in the West in general, were marked by a real progress of the left. The idea seemed to be admitted by everyone that there is a difference of nature between the right and the extreme right. The idea seemed to have been established that between a fascist and rightist, a decent man of the left has to choose the rightist, it is called the republican force. Since 25 years, 30 years that the Front National of Madame Le Pen appeared, it worked.

When the left was in the best position to win the right made alliance with the left, and the opposite was the left that the left always brought his votes to the right when the right was in a better condition. And there was a sort of consensus that fascism, or extreme populism was incomparable danger. Today, I have to say that the leftist candidate who arrived ahead who gathered the biggest number of votes, who is Mister Melenchon, who is a former socialist, who is a former Minister of Francois Mitterand, whom I know well myself. We were together in the barricades of the founding of SOS racism 30 years ago, this man took a stand recently, which is a denial of all the acquisition, of the political acquisitions of the last three decades, he said between Le Pen and Macron I refuse to choose. Between Le Pen and Macron I refuse to say what my preference is, I don’t even want to say who I will vote for personally.

This attitude is very well known in France and in Europe, it was the huge mistake of part of the left in Germany in the 1920’s and 30s when the German communist refused to choose between social democracy and Nazism. The main stream of the communist party said that they were twins and that they will not choose between the two twins, and they even did more, they entered in the Nazi movement, a number of communist, in order to infiltrate them from inside, this is the history of the beefsteak section, with the communist infiltrating some SS assault sections, brown outside and red inside. The communist party made this historical mistake in Germany. In France they made the same mistake to be part, the left made it also by committing the same huge mistake which presents the risk of, at the worst having Mrs Le Pen pass at the election, this is not excluded, if Mr Melenchon, Mr 18 percent of the vote, if Mr Melenchon, soon, quickly, he takes the risk of having Le Pen being elected, she can. She is very close to Macron, her pack of voters will remain consistent, Mr Macron with very little ahead has a pack of voters which is less solid than the pack of Mrs Le Pen and you may have part of the right, of the voters of Mr Fillon who will go Le Pen, part of them who do not vote and it would be their dishonour, the dishonour of the right.

But if the left does the same, abstain or vote National Front, Mrs Le Pen will be elected. This is the worst that can happen, but also, and if nothing change, Mr Macron will be elected with a short majority. To remember, you remember than 15 years ago, we had the same configuration between Chirac and Le Pen, the father, second round and thank god there was a republican reflex in all fronts. Rightist, leftists, people of the centre, all of them, all of the voters in France said ‘Ok, the question is not Chirac or not Chirac, the question is to be as numerous as possible in favour of Chirac in order to show that the extreme right is just a margin. This reflex, this republican reflex, at the moment where I am speaking, does not seem to work. I hope it will change, there is a lot of people who as I try to do through my magazines, my NGO ‘La regle du jeu’, I am trying to force, trying to convince, trying to plead, that even if you are not pro-Macron, even if you don’t think that he would be the best President of France, at least one thing should unify the French people, which is the refusal of Le Pen who is just number one a racist, number two friend with adversaries of France today, number three has a program which will bring the country to chaos.

At the moment where I am speaking, I am not sure we will convince, I am not sure that we- I mean the democrats of France- will have put enough shame on Mr Melenchon to convince him that for his own sake he has to say something and there is risk of the game which is absolutely not, which the end is absolutely not certain.  Le Pen danger is not excluded and those who did not see Trump coming, those who did not forecast the Brexit, might be at the moment, blind on the risk of Madame Le Pen being elected in 11 days. These are my remarks, lets continue.

Richard Risby: Well, we will sit and have some questions. Can I just say one thing first? I neglected to thank the Henry Jackson Society on behalf of everybody here and thank them not only for this wonderful meeting today but also, constantly providing the most excellent speakers from all over the world who give us valuable insight into all sort of activities. And because, Bernard, on one level, is very modest and I am going to do the work for him and show you his book, because this is his latest book and I actually spent my childhood in South Africa, and when I suppose it was never generalized, but the community I admired most was the Jewish community who in many instances led the charge against apartheid in very difficult circumstances. And this is a book that is really worthwhile reading because it shows the incredible intellectual underpinnings of Jewish people today and I can’t thoroughly recommend it, it’s on Amazon.

May I be allowed to ask the first question? I try to monitor what is going on in France from a political point of view, if we could just about assume that Macron wins, and he talked about changes, he talked about modernizing the economy and make it more competitive. And yet it is so often in France that people come up with these ideas, which in theory are accepted, in practice people do not like to accept them. When there was a debate a year or two ago about the 35 hours week, it was students where there is high unemployment in the country who were most furious about change here. So I just wonder in practice, how you think somebody with a program like that, who is talking about liberalisation and liberating the economy, in practice is going to persuade the French people to accept it.

BHL: He is in the process of persuading. Because he arrived ahead, why? Personal reasons and ideological reasons. The personal reason is that he a great charisma, is that he enters history of relationship of France with young leaders, there is a big story of that. Going from Saint Juste to Jeanne d’Arc to the French revolution which was made by young guys, so there is in the performance of Macron…. France is two things, we like in France the old senators, those who prove some time that old age is an insanity like Simone de Beauvoir said, borrowing to Chateaubriand the sentence ‘the old age, but there is also in the disturbed times, in the crisis times, a sort of sense that youth can be a solution. Macron took benefit of that. In this climate of sort of revolution that we are facing, there is this image and he is charismatic, he is charming and he is brilliant and so on. And he made it, and he will probably make it this Sunday.

The second you are right, is that he would make it only if people are ready to admit modernisation and so on. In order to admit modernisation and so on, they have to admit that the old dividing lines between left and right as it is practised in France since two centuries and half, is no longer as valuable, as decisive as it was. This is the real question. Left and right, which is a very French notion, it does not make the same sense in the UK or in America, it is linked, it is the last pearl of the 1789 oyster, you’re a leftist or you are a rightist in France regarding the wish or not of revolution since two centuries, you are a leftist if you endorse, if you think that revolution is good, this revolution on that but that there is a revolution that is desirable. This is to be a leftist. To be a rightist, means from Joseph de Maistre, Auguste Comte, from Chateaubriand, is to be repelled by this idea of revolution and to think that revolution is not desirable. This is the French game.

The political game is alternating around the still star of revolution. It is our big difference. My assessment, I am convinced that, for various reasons, which I explained partly in that, the star of revolution is declining in the political French sky. Not recently, it took time but we are the dream of revolution, the hope for revolution, the desire of revolution, more and more French people understand that it is the bright side of a very dark nightmare. If that is true, if this is true what I am saying now. Left and right will lose a big part of theirselves. They will continue to exist but not in the same way and they will not be the unique, the only, divided line in politic. You will modernity archaism, you will have international souverainism* (sovereignty), you will have human rights and you will have French first. You will have anti-totalitarians, once of the sky of revolution becomes paler, you will have a big number of diving lines according to which the debate will organise itself. Macron is a sign of that. If Macron works, if Macron for the first time for a centrist man of the centre made it on his name to have nearly a quarter of the voters it is because we  are at the end of this process. And if it works on Sunday, it will be because this is the end of this process and it would have been achieved. Macron is possible only for that. And the possibility of Macron is the proof that this process is reaching to a sort of positive end, a happy end. This is the question of Macron. This is why he is so important.

Beyond his personal qualities, I wrote a piece recently entitled ‘De quoi Macron est il le oui?’ of What Macron is the Yes? Macron is the yes to all of this process I am describing and in this case if I’m right, then he will succeed where so many of his predecessors failed to push liberal values. France is the most anti-liberal country in the west, France is the only European country where liberalism has become an insult. We are the country where two of the three world of our republican motto are a contradiction ‘Liberty and Equality’ and we stopped just after the revolution to be honest, we stopped to believe that they could be associated to each other and maybe this process is reaching to an end and we are at the verge of a new sort of political epoque.

Richard Risby: Thank you very much. And by the way, just on the Battle of Mosul you can get it and you can watch it for those who have not seen it before, and I have done this before. I am sure there is many questions, yes this lady there.

Guest: Yesterday, Marine Le Pen said that she would not represent the Front National anymore, do you think this will help her to gain more votes?

BHL: Of course yes. It would help her it was believable, if the voters believed it. But it’s hard to believe. She is so deeply connected with her sect, big sect, but sect. She is so heavily connected to her father, the father endorses her so much, and she has around her so many hard rightist advisors that she will have a lot of difficulties to convince us of that. Because she may, she is not head of the National Front since yesterday, but she still have around her a circle of her close advisors she has, they’re… I don’t even want to quote them in this great place.

But this circle of close advisors are not only extreme rightist, they are really Nazi. They are nostalgic of Hitler, they are people who celebrate the date of birth and date of death of Hitler. Yes, I will quote them, Mr Lousteau, Axel Lousteau, Mr Frederic Chatillon and Mr Jean Pennech, they are the three main advisors of Marine Le Pen and there was recently on France 2 on a program called ‘Envoye special’ you can watch that on youtube, a whole program about the three of them. And the program did give factual proof that they were nostalgic of Hitler, that they are paying visiting until recently to the last survivors of Hitler entourage like Leon Degrelle in Brussels. They are very close to our fascist agitators like Dieudonne and so on.

So this is the family circle of Le Pen, so of course she may liberate herself from that appearance from the National Front, but she will not liberate herself from this dark and gloomy and so dirty entourage. And the French know that. She will not get so many new voters, but the risk is Macron, because it is a battle of civilisation between Macron and Le Pen today. France is the land, the fief of the battle of values. Two civilisations pose themselves. The man who believes in liberalism, the woman who don’t believe in it. The man who believes in human rights, the woman who believes that human rights are a piece of shit. The man who believes that Putin is not a model and the woman who thinks that Putin is her reference and so on. So the risk is for Macron to be weak, this is what might happen, I hope not.

Guest: My name is (38.18), I am from Oxford, expert in international relations. I have studied Russian (38.25) so my particular interest is in (38.35) because that is the future of power (38.47) but it took twelve years. This is probably the next subject, and I was wondering if you could, in your opinion (38.55) in NASA or around the world have (39.00) power of aviation.

BHL: Okay. Power of aviation. It’s the new wars. There is, in the philosophy of war, in the literature of war, there is two big schemes, two big paradigms: the war from far and the war close to close, body to body. The whole literature celebrating war as a sort of body to body relationship with even sometimes some phallic and homosexual connotations. And you have a war without contact, from far. We have entered since a few decades, in the second era.  The wars from far have bad aspects, but they also have some virtues when they are well dealt with.  They have much less casualties, they are deprived of this terrible fascination of the blood to blood contact. When they are well done, not like Putin in Chechenia or in Aleppo, they have less damage. I remember when the British and French aviators helped the people in Benghazi to prevent the blood bath promised by the dictator, they made a great job. By strikes, which are still horrible, very precise strikes, as much as it is possible on military targets.  They did a well job.

Guest: My name is Alan Birthmouthe, I would like to ask you a quick question. Should Macron be elected, should Mrs May look at him in a way that would be beneficial to take them out the European Union or the opposite?

BHL: My feeling is that Macron will be the best possible interlocutor, being even the situation, being even the Brexit and so on, Macron will be the best interlocutor. Because he is, there is a share of values, because he knows that the British spirit is one of the breathing (42.47) of Europe. Because he will not have a punitive conception of the Brexit. Brexit is Brexit. Maybe you know my opinion, I think it was a big damage for UK and for Europe. But if it is really done, now there is two way to implement that: in a punishment way or in a pragmatic way, and Macron will adopt the second position for sure.

Guest: I worked in France for several years and my sense of this, is there is a big, big malaise throughout the whole society in terms of tax and economy. Now has Macron a chance at changing that? It’s like in Britain the 1970’s, there is a very deep malaise and I can’t seem to see that Macron will change that great malaise.

BHL: He will have a chance if he is well elected. If he is well elected, if he has a solid capital of votes. I will probably act quickly, in the moment of the state of grace, he will probably nominate a good Prime Minster, and I have my idea of that, and he can go quickly and efficiently. Yes he can do that. If you have the grace given by the voters, plus the grace of a personal charisma, the two combined can make a great achievement. Sarkozy, did not try as much as Macron will probably want and try. I don’t want to enter in French politics and I have a real personal sympathy to Nicolas Sarkozy and now he is out of the game, but I don’t think they have the same ambition. But Macron really entered in the game. I saw him, I personally saw his ambition taking shape. Maybe I am naïve, but it’s a recent ambition. He probably did not think of that a few years ago and behind this ambition, there is a real will to do things efficiently. He is not a real politics. I will not be surprised, I will go to the end of my talk, and if he is elected he will have had two lives. Life number one, he was a banker. Life number two, a president. I will not be surprised if he had a third life after that.


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